The end of civility?

The end of civility?

I’m going to say something about fascism, by way of definition, and then something more interesting (I hope) about the place we find ourselves in.

The left tends to use the term fascist as an all-purpose insult, and that’s understandable given the history of the 20th century. Its vagueness is also understandable because fascism is not a coherent political creed. In truth it’s an incoherent creed, characterised by contradictions. It’s populist, but authoritarian, anti-Establishment, but favourable to oligarchies. It glorifies strength and power, while being rooted in weakness, a sense of helplessness in the face of things you don’t like. It doesn’t have to be racist, but usually promotes fundamentalist myths of national identity.

Donald Trump is an incoherent fascist, his appeal unequivocally to fascist mentalities. That doesn’t mean the US is about to become a fascist state (its self-image as a standard bearer for democracy is probably too important for this to happen), but fascism’s resurgence in that proudly democratic country is a mark of the serious trouble in which the West now finds itself.

Definition matters. Winston Churchill famously said that democracy was the worst of all government systems, apart from everything else. This obscures the important truth that there are many ways of thinking about democracy, and structuring it. Politicians have for some time been abusing the practical vagueness of the word to suit whatever short term points they want to score, particularly in their use of the concept of a “mandate”, so it’s not surprising that many people seem confused about how government and democracy work together. We urgently need to address that confusion.

The will of the people?

Government is a pervasive feature of human social organisation, reflecting a rational need to divide and allocate responsibilities as societies become bigger and more complex. In earlier times government tended towards autocracy, but even then depended on some form of popular assent, however passive. Since the American and French revolutions the concept of democracy has slowly taken hold, at least in the West.

Government cannot be about literally representing “the will of the people”, when many (or most) of the decisions faced by governors demand specialised knowledge and expertise. The popular assent in a democracy must include agreement that the government will make informed decisions on our behalf. On the face of it this might seem paternalistic but in truth it should be no more than a sensible division of labour.

The point of elections is to ensure that those governors remain answerable for their decisions, which in theory at least should ensure those decisions are taken in the interest of electors. Edmund Burke, still an authoritative presence in British thinking about its unwritten constitution, was very clear about the duty of MPs to act according to their best judgement, whether or not we as electors agreed with that judgement. If time proved MPs wrong, we’d have our chance to throw them out.

When we speak of our “representative democracy”, it means government which represents our interests, but not necessarily our views. It is of course unlikely that any democratic administration could last very long if it was seriously at odds with public opinion, but then it’s also long been a role of good government to lead public opinion, rather than simply following it.

The widening gulf

These assumptions went largely unchallenged until recently. They’re being challenged now for a number of reasons, including the rise of assertive individualism, but more seriously our democratic structures have failed to evolve in ways which can keep politicians properly connected to their electorates.

In the British system notably, for decades now governments have been able to secure working majorities based on a disproportionately small share of the potential vote. There’s a chicken and egg effect here, as politicians schooled in spin have focused “scientifically” on the floating voter minority with a decisive influence on actual election outcomes, encouraging in everyone else the sense that their votes really didn’t matter much, fuelling the frustration and anger that feeds fascism. The leading UK proponents of this kind of political wisdom, Tony Blair and David Cameron, learnt their arts from Bill Clinton, so maybe it’s no coincidence that our different democratic systems should be facing similar crises.

The EU referendum has highlighted a further problem. One of the reasons referendums don’t feature much in our political history is that they enshrine an all-or-nothing, yes-or-no approach to electoral responsiveness, and that’s simply not how our democracy is supposed to work. Cameron cynically deployed the referendum tactic hoping it would close down an argument he didn’t want to have with his party, but when it returned the “wrong” result, he’s been hoisted with his own petard.

The Brexit victors now say “the British people have spoken”. Really? In its own terms the referendum result was a narrow victory for leave, but what has “the British people” said? By what arithmetical ignorance does a 37 percentage equate to “the British people”? What about the Scottish people? Does it simply not matter that a much larger majority of this geographically distinct group said something different? (It matters a lot.)

Government for all

One of the most important, if largely unspoken truths of democracy, is that the system needs to have enough checks and balances to ensure we don’t have the tyranny of the majority, and that reasonable minority interests are properly accommodated. Whatever their political complexion, governments are supposed to rule on behalf of the whole country, and not just their core or floating supporters. (Even Donald Trump has gone through the conventional motions of acknowledging this in his acceptance speech.) Our democracy functions on the balanced poles of careful judgement (by governors) and accountability, the latter in place to keep those judgements careful.

It is entirely relevant not only that the referendum result was close, but that it also did not represent a sufficient proportion of the population for any government to be confident that what was “said” by that 37 per cent in June is still the case, or that it will be the case in two or three years’ time when the UK might actually be in a position to withdraw from the EU.

In this light a second referendum on the actual terms of that withdrawal is the very least a democratic government should do. Here politicians have made a further mess of things by talking loosely of mandates, but whatever mandates our electoral system offer they are never for a particular policy; an electoral mandate is a much more general consent to govern according to your political values and apparent competence.

The wrong result?

This, a little ironically, is one of the reasons why it might be legitimate to hold a referendum on a single issue which could have a huge and lasting effect on the country. But if you’re going to do this you need to frame the referendum properly. You need to set a demanding threshold for voter participation, rather than a simple majority of votes cast, because a slender majority will be too easily subject to change or malign influence (for instance the blatant lies told during the referendum campaign). Such a threshold is the norm in other countries which use referendums more often, and it was used in the UK for Scotland’s devolution (if only once, in 1979).

Without this kind of rigour the claim “the British people have spoken” becomes no more than a bit of rhetorical posturing.

Indeed the problem with the EU referendum result is not that it’s the “wrong” result, but that it has no credibility, and it should not be the electoral rock on which the future of this country is built.

(We might ask the Brexiteers why they feel free to ignore “the will of the British people” as spoken in 1975? They could sensibly answer that things have changed in forty years, and I’d agree, but if things have changed again a year from now, or two years from now, why doesn’t that matter?)

It’s not a game

That this should have happened, and that political discourse routinely confuses ideas about mandates and winning, is hardly surprising, since Clinton/Blair and all those who have followed them turned politics into a game.

Representative democracy, with its checks and balances on power, evolved as a process, and elections, though important, are only part of that process. But in our debased model they are seen as the point of the process, as in a sport.

There’s a fairly obvious, important difference, because when you win in a sport, that’s it, but when you win an election, that’s only the beginning of the next period. And yet somehow these two ideas have been confused, not least by politicians themselves, who too often seem confused themselves.

A further problem with the idea that “the British people have spoken”: it rests on an assumption about identity, when our faltering democracies are making people question an assumed identity. When regions with a distinct geography, distinct culture and even distinct legislatures find themselves at odds with the majority of a different area (for instance Scotland, or California) who can blame them for withdrawing their assent from the process that claims to govern in their interest, and has simply failed them?

Or (should you be thinking that this is just another anti-Brexit rant) why were the only people who seemed outraged by Wallonia’s refusal to accept the CETA free trade deal with Canada the EU governments and officials who had negotiated the deal? Wallonia’s stance had broad support across the populations of Europe, support which European governments felt they could ignore (because they thought they knew better, and they are probably wrong).

The CETA deal has been signed, but it still seems unlikely to be ratified as long as the unaccountable trade disputes tribunals are in place, just as the TTIP deal would have been defeated if the negotiators had persisted with it. Neoliberalism enshrined the dominance of its dubious free market dogma above any other considerations, a dogma too often pursued by European technocrats. What’s happened with CETA is a happy sign of the end of the hegemony of neoliberalism in the higher reaches of European government (nationally and within the EU). Although those governments hoped to sneak it through, however narrowly democracy finally asserted itself, which in itself should give pause to those who claim that the EU weakens democracy.

Managing conflicting interests

So let me be clear. I’m not arguing that governments are wiser than their populations, and should be allowed to get on with the job regardless of public opinion. On the contrary, if government is really about the management and reconciliation of conflicting interests (which I’d suggest is the heart of the matter), then keeping people with you, explaining what you’re trying to do, (questioning it too, which demands more thoughtfulness than blindly following focus groups) and so soliciting assent is fundamental to the functioning of democracy.

Manipulating select elements of public opinion in the short term (which is what you do if you think democracy is a game) is no substitute for this tougher work, but if you don’t put in that work you’ll be feeding the frustration and sense of disenfranchisement that breeds fascism.

This substitution of spin for engagement, and all the cynicism that underpins it, is why we are where we are in the US and the UK, and possibly the rest of Europe, with increasingly divided societies, and a resurgent, mindless nationalism.

Along the way, as so often in the work of administration, we’ve ended up confusing rules with the principles those rules were created to support. The electoral college system in the US was developed to protect the interests of smaller states, but if it’s now distorting general election outcomes it needs to be reformed. Here in the UK an increasingly fragmented cultural and economic geography is not being served by our archaic first past the post voting system.

Beyond the voting system

It’s not just a problem of electoral reform, though such reform would certainly help. The conflicting interests that produced the Brexit vote were certainly not defined by class. Although the anger of white working class men, apparently left behind by globalisation and new technology, was probably a factor (as it was in the US presidential election), most of the votes for Brexit came from older people, mostly in the relatively prosperous south, from people who too feel threatened by the rapidly changing present (it’s fair to say that their media organ the Daily Mail is an almost ceaseless howl of rage, unwarranted by reality, but that’s what happens when you feel threatened). This anxiety is a common feature of older generations, the fear that the world is changing for the worse, and certainly the speed of social and technological change in the last thirty years is unprecedented in human history, which makes such anxiety understandable, even as it may be often misplaced.

The influence of this anxiety could and should have been balanced by allowing younger people to vote in the referendum, but in any case it’s incumbent on government to give greater attention to all these constituencies, reassuring where there is ungrounded fear, but also acknowledging that the views of younger people might have a stronger claim on the future than those of us who won’t live to see it (anxiously or otherwise).

It’s not just a question of electoral reform, because the checks and balances which you need in any democratic system to ensure that governments govern in the interest of all go way beyond the voting system. They involve the role of the judiciary, the media, the relationship between free speech (highly desirable) and accountability to the truth (increasingly necessary), legislative scrutiny and devolution of powers, to name just the headline factors.I won’t presume to tell the US what to do, but here in the UK it is time to put the work into a written constitution, work which would force all these questions to the surface, and might give us a chance of coming up with some answers.

It is the surest means to address what is in effect the corruption of our political system. It is a ready means to restore an increasingly absent civility to our culture.

Sadly, that’s unlikely to happen when most of the machinery of government is tied up trying to strike a trade deal with East Timor.

If this argument makes sense to you, please share it as much as you can. It will be the last time I write about politics, at least for a while.

Crisis what crisis?

Crisis what crisis?

We are in the throes of a major crisis of political legitimacy. It’s been sparked by the Brexit vote, though its roots go much further back. The only hope of a good outcome is if we face that crisis for what it is (and right now, our politicians seem to have their heads elsewhere).

The Brexit campaigners opened this Pandora’s box with their slogan “take back control”, which in a calculated way aimed to re-direct widespread public disaffection with Westminster against Brussels. It always looked a cynically potent idea, and in England and Wales it worked. Now the hard questions obscured by the simplicity of that slogan are making themselves felt, the disaffection is likely to get worse. The promises made (yet again) can’t be fulfilled.

The democratic deficit

But we do need to look further back. Thanks to the idiosyncrasies of our first past the post voting system there has not been a parliament that’s truly representative of the popular vote for decades. For both Thatcher and Blair, falls in public support actually translated into increased majorities. Minority parties like the LibDems have been consistently under-represented. With a touch of irony, in the last election Labour was wiped out in Scotland, though the electorate was in reality much more evenly split between Labour and the SNP.

That’s ironic because Tony Blair had a golden opportunity to change things, but in the end played true to tribal form and decided to ignore the work he’d commissioned from Paddy Ashdown about alternative voting systems. This clinging to the possibility of undiluted power in government seems to be as hard wired into Labour as it is to the Conservatives. It’s a blindness that has led us directly to where we are now, with large swathes of the electorate feeling disenfranchised and ignored by the political mainstream.

Stir into this mix a disastrously conceived referendum. It’s now all too clear that Cameron never seriously considered the possibility that he might lose it, a reflection in itself of a detached arrogance widespread in the political class, an arrogance which believes you can tell any lie that suits you and you’ll fool enough of the people for enough of the time to get away from it. Ironic too that this cynicism, even more pronounced among his opponents, should have cost him the referendum and with it his political career.

False clarity

I called this a crisis of legitimacy, and that’s because it’s been driven by hard questions about the legitimacy of the referendum result. Some politicians (Tory and Labour) as usual with their own agendas, are suggesting that “the people have spoken”, as if there were nothing else to say, as if it were absolutely clear what the “people” have actually said. But we deserve a more thoughtful response than this.

At the very least we have to ask whether a result that appears to have been secured by false promises can simply be accepted (particularly as there’s no constitutional reason to do so – if it’s more a moral obligation then you could argue more convincingly that politicians have a moral obligation to reject something that’s been secured by lies, has not been thought through, and looks so obviously damaging).

While we’re at it we might also be asking what really lay behind the result. There’s little doubt that it was in part an upsurge in xenophobia, deliberately stirred by the “take back control” slogan, though less commonly noted is the truth that this xenophobia is by no means confined to working class voters blaming the hardships imposed by austerity on immigration. The bulk of the leave vote came from the south outside London, from Conservative supporters who are for the most part far more Eurosceptic (and routinely xenophobic, sometimes straightforwardly racist) than their MPs.

There’s not much that can be done about these opinions (these people will think what they want to think). The Left on the other hand seem more comfortable suggesting that an electorally-significant proportion of its traditional voters have been misled, or that the Leave vote was really a howl of protest against a remote metropolitan elite (including the once-Blairite Labour leadership), and is best addressed by opposing the austerity agenda of the government (whatever’s left of it). Although I have some sympathy with this view it is at best a half-truth.

The scary world

Another likely truth, though its significance is harder to gauge, is that we’re hearing a howl of insecurity in a world where what seemed fundamental assumptions have been displaced or withered on the vine of their own irrelevance. There’s a spectrum of loss here, from things we’re really better off without, (gender stereotyping, sexism and sexual discrimination etc) to things that might be personally catastrophic (for instance the substantial disappearance of manual work outside the construction, catering and care sectors). The speed of technology-driven change in the last twenty years is unprecedented in human history. It’s not fanciful to suggest that part of the anti-EU protest vote reflected a nostalgic longing for a mythologised past where Britain had an empire and children spent their time with skipping ropes rather than mobile phones. I’d argue that this personal experience of change is probably more significant than abstract fears about globalisation.

For a whole load of reasons then people are feeling insecure, disenfranchised, and adrift in a society which seems to be organising itself against their interests. None of this has got much to do with the functioning of the EU in relation to the UK’s democracy, but the referendum vote probably had everything to do with the general promise of control (or regaining control).

This dissatisfaction certainly needs a political answer. Theresa May is recognising this in her early statements but I wouldn’t hold my breath for any substantial change from that direction.

Mandate my arse

In any case the referendum has highlighted a mismatch in expectations of empowerment and our usually incoherent expectations of democracy. Politicians themselves are to blame for this incoherence, when they bandy around loose concepts like “mandates” in order to justify what they want to do.

For instance, only activists bother to read election manifestos. No one really votes on the basis of a whole manifesto. Key points or pledges will be pulled out and may feature in the election campaign, and may or may not be decisive, but decisions are often guided by more emotional responses. I don’t believe many people really voted for “more austerity” in the last UK election, but they did make a general (albeit misdirected) judgement about economic competence.

And yet politicians will routinely claim they have a mandate for every word in that manifesto, if it suits their current purposes. Happily in reality things are a little more complicated. Any proposed legislation will be scrutinised by cross-party committees. Good MPs will defy party lines when they believe significant minority interests are being trampled over. This is a vital part of a functioning democracy, because the alternative would be a kind of totalitarianism of technical majorities.

In a vital sense then democracy is not about following the “will of the people” (because that’s nearly always an elusive quantity). It’s about being broadly accountable to the people on whose behalf you govern. Elections tend to be based on retrospection: with reason people don’t set much store by politicians’ promises, so the future only becomes relevant when we’re unhappy with the immediate past.

Whose subsidiarity is it anyway?

It matters that we insist on this complexity at every level. So when Jeremy Corbyn says he has the support of the mass of party members that’s indisputable (it’s much more clear cut than the referendum result). But he’s being disingenuous if he’s suggesting that it’s all that matters. What’s more, suggesting that MPs themselves should only follow the will of members (let alone their constituency activists) is to ignore the necessary (and desirable) realities of democratic practice: MPs have a primary responsibility to their constituents, not to their local party.

I’m not suggesting that party members’ opinion doesn’t matter (which is why common fairness demands that Corbyn should be on any ballot for a new leader, a contest I imagine he’d win comfortably), but that other group opinion matters too, and in some cases might matter more.

A democratic result can too easily depend on how or where you draw boundaries. In front of the Brexiters is the uncomfortable reality that Scotland did not vote to leave (nor did Northern Ireland). The further irony here is that Brexit campaign was on the face of it about the surrender of national sovereignty, the fact that the UK’s interests could be sidelined by a majority vote in the councils of the EU.

In reality subsidiarity is supposed to be one of the guiding principles of the EU. It means that decisions should be left as far as possible with the authority closest to the people who will be affected by those decisions. It means for instance that the EU would not attempt to rule on road pricing in London, or for that matter constitutional relations between Scotland and England.

And yet here is a majority UK vote which would sideline the clearly articulated wishes and interests of the Scottish people, a people who are by any definition a sovereign nation. Why does this not matter to those who want to claim some kind of binding democratic legitimacy for the referendum vote? Of course if the bill which enabled the referendum had been properly thought through it would have attended to these possibilities, and defined tightly the thresholds and conditions in which a vote for such huge constitutional change could be treated as legitimate and binding. In the absence of such pre-approved definition the declaration of legitimacy becomes arbitrary, and just another political tool.

Our new prime minister says she intends to fight for Scotland’s continuing presence in the Union, while pushing Brexit forward, as if this could all be settled by an act of her will. This is what’s technically called wishful thinking, (rather like the suggestion that we can leave the EU, limit freedom of movement and still be part of the single market, technically known as a lie). Labour has hardly said anything at all (apart from the false suggestion that we have to accept the referendum and move on) but I guess it’s got other problems on its mind.

We can’t go on like this

But these stresses will not go away. In the last few days there have been cross-party proposals from the Lords for a new federal constitution in the UK, explicitly to head off the possibility of disintegration. There has been talk of a new centrist political grouping aligning MPs from across the spectrum who could make a continuing case for remaining in the EU.

But it’s no longer just about the EU. We have to become much more explicit about what we mean when we speak of our democracy, and the sources of legitimacy for the actions taken in its name. The Tories will not address this, because in the end the status quo serves them too well.

People mostly don’t get too excited about the nuances of voting systems, but they are feeling disenfranchised all the same. That’s why it’s the responsibility of politicians themselves to deal with the real causes and effects. I’m with Jeremy Corbyn (and Theresa May) when he argues that we need to change track on austerity, but to address the bitter divisions that have opened across the UK any vision of the future needs to be wrapped around concrete proposals to reinvigorate and make relevant our democracy.

That means at the very least changing our voting system. It probably means abolishing the House of Lords and attending to the distribution of power through the nations and regions of the UK. It’s going to take cross-party collaboration among the UK’s progressive groupings. These can’t be afterthoughts, any more than the looming environmental crisis can be an afterthought, though if you listen to current mainstream political discourse there’s no sign of it being treated as anything else.

Perhaps then (and only then) might we be in a position to have a sensible conversation with the rest of the EU about balancing the undoubted benefits of free trade in a single market with the need to maintain proper political accountability and legitimacy at every level.

Corbyn’s failure

Corbyn’s failure

I’m going to stick my neck out here and I’m very sorry to say this, but Jeremy Corbyn has lost my support. He did so with this statement responding to the vote of no confidence from MPs in his leadership.

“Labour has the responsibility to give a lead where the Government will not. We need to bring people together, hold the Government to account, oppose austerity and set out a path to exit that will protect jobs and incomes.”

With this statement he has betrayed the hopes and interests of the young people who formed the core of his support, and who have been so badly let down by Cameron’s referendum. It’s an abysmal failure of leadership.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Corbyn. I supported him because unlike the other candidates for the Labour leadership he was the authentic voice of opposition, the necessary antidote to the hopeless platitudes of the Blairites, though for pragmatic reasons I always wished that voice could have come from the mouth of someone younger, someone without his baggage, someone who would be a harder target for our rabid right wing media.

When Labour MPs responded to the Brexit debacle by turning on Corbyn I wanted to put my head in my hands. But now I fear they have little choice. (Labour might well be finished anyway – this really is the Last Chance Saloon.)

Owen Jones, as committed a Corbyn supporter as any, has put his finger on the immediate problem. He’s admitted frankly that for him there was a plan, that Corbyn would continue to articulate and influence the necessary opposition to the Tory government, but as we came closer to the election set for 2020, he would step down in favour of a younger more compelling candidate, also from the left of the party.

But now, with the distinct possibility of a snap election, it seems unlikely that there will be time for all this.

It’s not that I think Corbyn would be an electoral disaster in these circumstances. The media is very sure he’d be a disaster, while for the rest of us the truth might be a little less cut and dried. But if in that defiant statement he’s setting out his stall for such a campaign then I couldn’t support him anyway.

The only person to blame for the Brexit debacle is David Cameron, not Corbyn. Nor do I blame Corbyn for refusing to share a platform with Cameron. I’m glad he refused. It’s more what Corbyn didn’t do.

He didn’t set out a clear alternative, progressive and positive case for the UK’s continuing membership of the EU. He unequivocally urged supporters to vote Remain, but that’s not the same thing. It was left to the likes of the Green’s Caroline Lucas, who for my money remains the most cogent and impressive voice on the left.

Now it sounds as though Corbyn has no intention of pushing that progressive vision, that he has indeed fallen back on the old hard left antagonism to the EU, suggesting we might still create a workers’ paradise right here on our own.

It’s crap. There is no path to exit that will protect jobs and incomes. If we leave the EU and the single European market there will be considerable, unavoidable short and medium term pain. It’s a version of the same bollocks peddled by the Leave campaign.

I suppose too you could argue that Corbyn was being no more than a proper democrat, acknowledging that “the people have spoken”. But there’s far too much wrong with what’s happened for the referendum verdict to be taken at face value, and no political leader who thinks it’s ok if we’re all screwed by Cameron’s biggest screw up is going to get my respect, let alone my vote.

Because it is a matter of leadership. Good leaders seek to change and lead opinion, not follow it, and then be ready to be held to account for their decisions at the end of their term. That simple idea seems to have been largely lost in a political culture driven into the ground by the fake wisdom of focus groups and Clinton’s “triangulation” of left and right. Labour is where it is now substantially because of its failure in the wake of Gordon Brown’s notorious “bigot” gaffe to address the growing resentment of immigration among many of its traditional supporters. It was never going to be an easy task, but then nor was saying “we hear your pain” ever going to cut it. Corbyn has said a little more than that, but he’s done nothing to confront or counter the Conservative suggestion that there was nothing to be done, that this was all the EU’s fault.

(The Tory remainers would no doubt say that it was the EU’s fault but was a price worth paying for the prosperity brought by the EU, a prosperity not felt by many in the traditional Labour fold. The Tory leavers would just say it was the EU’s fault, end of story.)

The political world is in a state of unprecedented turmoil. It’s not clear what incoherent stance the Conservatives are going to take next, but it is pretty clear that this is no time for the same old shit from everyone else. In a week or so’s time the Chilcot report is expected to destroy the last shreds of any credibility Tony Blair might once have had. At least this should at a stroke rule out the tainted likes of Hilary Benn or David Milliband (god help us). There is a glimmer of opportunity for the UK’s progressive parties if they can put their heads together, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

In the meantime Corbyn should already be yesterday’s news, because he’s never shown any interest in such a project, and in these last ten months failed to build the bridges even within the Parliamentary Labour Party that could have taken him through this crisis. I’ve loved his integrity, his refusal to play the PR games, but he’s never framed a bigger vision, a vision that could give people hope of something different from the past, and more than the failed neoliberalism of the Blairites and the Tories alike (not to mention the Orange Book LibDems).

I see little hope of that from the likes of Angela Eagle either, and maybe that’s why Labour really could be finished, its vote likely to continue to bleed out to UKIP, the Greens, the SNP and perhaps even Tim Farron’s newly leftish LibDems. I hope not, but while the Tories currently present an open goal, Labour has only a few weeks to sort itself out. It’s not a cheering thought.


Almost immediately after I’d posted this Caroline Lucas published her open letter to Corbyn, inviting him to join her in a progressive coalition. To me such a coalition offers a potentially mould-breaking way forward, a chance to break through the stagnation of party politics that in part has brought us to this miserable place, where for all the terrible things they have done, and their current complete disarray, the Conservatives are still showing at level pegging with Labour.

This dismal prospect rather than any Blairite coup is why Labour is turning on itself, and it’s why figures of the left such as Lisa Nandy have resigned from Corbyn’s cabinet. People talking about Blairite conspiracy need to address this.

As far as I know Corbyn has yet to respond, maybe because he has other things on his mind which would be fair enough, but it has to be said that such pluralism goes against everything his strand of Labour has ever done, and I’d be happily surprised if he showed any enthusiasm for it now.

But we are in a changed reality. Labour has for the foreseeable future lost Scotland, which stacks the odds against it ever commanding a majority on its own. It’s hard to know whether in its current form the SNP is a progressive party or not, but I’d have thought it was worth having the conversation. The timing of all this is hardly desirable, but then as Macmillan remarked, politics has always been about events.

Unsound bites

Unsound bites

The launch marketing of The American foundered on a clash between two cinematic cultures, which is ironic given the subject of the film. The abuse of marketing in US and UK politics threatens social and cultural integrity itself.

When Anton Corbijn’s The American was released it was sold as an action vehicle for George Clooney, set in gorgeous Italian landscapes. I wasn’t excited at the prospect, so when I recently caught up with the film I was pleasantly surprised. Although the film has the semblance of a thriller plot (Clooney plays an assassin lying low after some kind of screw up in Sweden), it was barely an action movie at all, but rather a meditation on the dehumanising effects of living without commitment or the emotional burden of ethics.

Clooney, and indeed all the other actors are very good. Once you’ve worked out where it’s going the story is predictable, but then the story’s not really the point. The film is engaging, in a laid back way. It doesn’t have anything complicated to say, but quite a lot to show.

It’s easy to see the film itself as a working through of feelings about the influence of Hollywood on European cinema. There’s even a pointed scene where Sergio Leonie’s Once Upon a Time in the West is showing on a TV in a bar. Clooney’s presence sets up expectations of the kind of film this might be, and then goes off in a different direction. It’s an acknowledgement of American craft and skill, while insisting that there’s a bigger universe out there.

The American had a limited budget and has made a decent profit, but it didn’t have its producers’ desired impact on release. Perhaps the trailers were part of the problem, editing together some of the film’s few action sequences, so the reality was bound to disappoint people who’d gone along expecting something like Taken.

Marketing is an important part of the Hollywood machine. It can account for 60 per cent of a blockbuster’s budget, which seems ironic when you’d have thought the point of a blockbuster concept is that it should more or less sell itself. The reality is more complicated, particularly in a world where there are so many competing claims on our attention (worryingly for Hollywood, US cinema attendance by those under 24 has fallen sharply in recent years).

But you have to wonder at the wisdom of trying to sell a film (or anything) as something that it’s not. Some kind of backlash will always be likely, and social media will amplify that backlash.

It also goes against what I’d always understood as a fundamental principle of marketing, which is to match the nature of a proposition to its most likely receptive audience, and to make sure they get to hear your story. This means the proposition has to be grounded in truth.

To take another, smaller example, one of my favourite films of the last 20 years is Peter Chesholm’s Funny Bones. It’s a quirky British film, about the nature of comedy, and coincidentally also considers transatlantic influence. It’s apparent from the cover of the DVD that the marketing people didn’t have a clue how to sell it: the box carries an image of Jerry Lewis and Oliver Platt which doesn’t appear in the film, contrived to suggest that this is a zany mainstream comedy, which it really isn’t. Fans of The Nutty Professor are not likely to be pleased. It’s as though the marketing people, faced with a difficult task, decided to perform a different task. In doing so they betray the film, and indeed the audiences they’ve misled. Perhaps they thought that if they could just persuade people to have a look at the film they’d be enchanted anyway, their lives enriched by pleasant surprise, but this for the most part is not how things work.

We can probably blame Edward Bernays for the creep of advertising’s dark arts into practically every aspect of our lives, really from the 1920s and his now notorious campaign to create a female-friendly image of tobacco, but it would probably have happened anyway with the development of mass media (alongside the development of psychology as a kind of science).

The manipulations of advertising, PR, or marketing don’t matter too much when they’re focused on your choice of washing powder, or even which films you might want to see. But they have to be more worrying when used in the service of more important decisions. The disconnect between promotion and reality around The American might have damaged the reputation of the film initially, but the film’s reality could be trusted to assert itself without long term consequences. This isn’t true of the political or social world, where the honing of the soundbite now threatens the democracy it was supposed to serve.

Consider the current favourite with the Brexit camp here in the UK: “take back control”. It took the campaign a while to get to this one, and it seems to be playing well with the disaffected British public, as I imagine the focus groups said it would. It’s not surprising, because the slogan does two simple things. It’s a dog whistle to anti-immigration sentiment (”take back control of our borders”) and an attempt to plug in to the widespread alienation from the political world. It promises power to those feeling powerless and disenfranchised, a power which could start with a cross on a ballot paper.

As a practitioner in this sleazy world of messaging I have to concede a certain amount of admiration for the craft of it. As a resident of the wider world, I can only express my disgust at its cynical duplicity. Immigration is unlikely to change whatever the result of the referendum, because the forces driving it are more complex and economically necessary than EU rules about freedom of movement. Nor will it hand power to ordinary people, but instead will strengthen the hands of those already gleefully tearing up the post-war social democratic settlement in this country.

It’s worse than a lie (though it is, without doubt, a calculated lie). It promises liberation, and a reinvigoration of the political process. When those hopes are inevitably disappointed it will only create further disillusionment and cynicism, as well as ushering in a plague of unintended consequences.

In a sense advertising has always been about crafting dissatisfaction, so it can offer a way forward to a different state. In doing this it’s trodden the margins of the real, the grey zone between the aspirational and a verifiable means to meet those aspirations (typically in the form of product features). But in political advertising we’ve already passed into the Orwellian world of newspeak, where war is peace, lies are the truth, where the most famous slogan in British advertising history (”Labour isn’t working”) ushered in a government that happily trebled unemployment within a year. Although it uses the tools of marketing, it’s actually the opposite of accepted marketing wisdom, and it can get away with this because unlike the commercial world, in the political world reality can take longer to assert itself.

We endure this as we endure the rain, as if it were a force of nature, as if nothing can be done. But it’s not like the rain. It’s more like a cancer eating at the body of society, and we need to recognise it for what it is if we’re ever going to find a cure.

Dinosaurs and dimwits

Dinosaurs and dimwits

In last Sunday’s Observer David Mitchell lambasted the looming referendum on EU membership as a failure of political leadership. He says (more or less) that issues like this are not a matter of personal preference, but demand technical knowledge and expertise. If we’re honest, while everyone might have an opinion, it’s not just a matter of opinion, and Mitchell argues that we appoint political leaders to inform themselves properly and make these decisions on our behalf.

Underpinning this argument is the point that our democracy is not designed to ensure our politicians reflect our views (which may or may not be worth reflecting); it’s to ensure that politicians remain answerable for their decisions to the electorate, and so will continue to govern in the interests of the electorate, rather than (say) their immediate friends. I imagine this is what Churchill meant when he described democracy as the least bad of the available options.

We all know that we’re not having this referendum because it’s important to where we find ourselves at this moment in the world, but because David Cameron hoped (and even this was a stupid hope) to silence the anti-EU majority in his own party. As Martin Wolf suggested recently in the FT, this is possibly the most irresponsible decision by a UK prime minister in living memory.

It strikes me that this kind of abdication of responsibility (as if the problem were too difficult to be addressed through parliament’s normal channels) reflects a much deeper and potentially more serious failure of government. The gravest issue of our time is not whether the British are European (we have been for at least 1000 years), nor whether free markets are the answer to everything (they are not), nor even the problems posed by the rise of religious fundamentalism, but whether we have been inducing a fundamental change in the Earth’s climate, and whether we can still do anything about it.

This matters because we really are facing a global catastrophe, not in my shrinking lifetime perhaps, but probably, devastatingly, within 100 years. My children’s lives are likely to be hit, and if I ever have any grandchildren they will face a very different world, a world where rising sea levels have removed substantial areas of land, where established water and food sources have been devastated and other resources, including energy, are subject to increasing constraints. It’s probably true that these effects will be felt most acutely in the developing world (which would be cause enough for action), but no one can seriously imagine Europe and the Americas will be untouched.

There are still people who want to deny the overwhelming science in play here. It would be a better world if we could simply ignore them, though tragically they have held positions of substantial influence, particularly in the US. The worst of it is that they have helped the world’s governments sit on their hands for the last 20 years, when there might still have been time to set us on a different course.

Our governments continue to pat themselves on the back over “progress”, for instance at the recent Paris summit, but they are still playing to their imaginary galleries, while the hard truth is that it’s probably too late already. Click here for some tough data. As the blog’s author David Roberts puts it “The obvious truth about global warming is this: barring miracles humanity is in for some awful shit.”

It’s probably true that global realities have changed faster than our inter-governmental institutions, and those changing realities have highlighted increasingly pressing questions about what governments might be for. Historically that question might not have seemed so problematic. I’d argue that elites have always deliberately confused “rule” and “government” to legitimise the exercise of their power in their own interests, but as societies have grown more complex the argument has usually invoked some notion of a contract between governors and governed, so that we the people would accept the imposition of laws (and tithes) in exchange for peace, stability (and binding arbitration).

With the rise of nations, standing armies and empires through the 18th and 19th centuries, the dynastic squabbles of royal families and other leaders morphed into warfare as an extension of trade, and governments appointed themselves the guardians of a much broader concept of national interest, while the “people” dutifully lined up behind them. This murderous willy-waving reached its nadir in the 20th century and its global wars. For a while it seemed the horrors unleashed might bring “leaders” to their senses, and in this crucible both the UN and the EU were born, but in one form or another the willy waving continues to define the conduct of foreign affairs, while globalising business interests (empowered by technology) have been rewriting the rules to suit themselves (with suitable proxies in place in government to align those rules with selective national interests*).

If ever there was an issue demanding collective government action and leadership, that issue must be climate change. They’ve talked, and some have set targets, and some countries have tried to set examples, but it’s beginning to look like it’s all been too little, too late. I doubt future generations, dealing with the consequences, will judge this prevarication kindly, though ironically what’s been exposed is a fault line in the notion of popular government, democratic or not. Real leadership would have meant agreeing and imposing measures that made our lives a bit harder, for the sake of a greater good. But our leaders don’t trouble themselves with that kind of difficulty.

In my more optimistic moments I comfort myself with the thought that as and when the consequences begin to make themselves felt, they will force a shift in outlook and conduct, towards the kind of large scale co-operation and co-ordination which is the best excuse for the continuing existence of such government. In these optimistic moments too I can take comfort from the emergence at grassroots of a new communitarianism, which itself reflects a perception of the increasing failures of national governments to address what actually matters. This all looks pretty Utopian at the moment, as relatively small groups of people seek to take back some control over their lives, growing their own food, developing community energy projects and so on. Then again it hardly seems Utopian to want to step out of the fairyland in which many in our society and its politicians seem to live.

In Germany recently there were successive days when the nation’s electricity needs were supplied (and even oversupplied) entirely by renewable resources, many of them based in local communities. What may be emerging is a new relationship between large scale and local infrastructure, with consequences for political organisation too.

A commercial housing development in the Netherlands suggests how this might develop. Concepts like the ReGen village, which are moving quickly from the drawing board to practical reality, promise to redefine the relationship between local self-organised communities and larger infrastructures. It’s unlikely they could be an entirely “closed loop”; health, education, wider transport and telecommunication systems, not to mention justice, are still going to need to work on some kind of larger scale. But where government will fit in this redefined relationship is as yet an open question, particularly if coming generations are asking that question in the light of the failure of our government structures to address the most urgent issues of the day.

Then again this is me thinking in optimistic mode. If I look to present realities and the preoccupations of our politicians, it’s like watching a herd of brontosaurus turning away from that big rock falling from the sky to argue about the threat of velociraptors.

We tend to imagine the future a 100 years from now as a bit like now, but with better phones and spaceships. I doubt it’s going to be like that. I doubt our work, our leisure, or even our basic ways of eating and buying things will be the same. I doubt the way we regard or handle government will be anything like it is now. I certainly hope not.

*I don’t particularly want to blame business here. Setting aside the disastrous notions of “shareholder-led capitalism”, business people are in my experience pragmatic. You can’t expect much in the way of social vision from them, but on the whole they’d rather be part of the solution than the problem and still look to governments to provide the context in which they can be. The trouble is that governments in the last 30 years have given up on that role, because it was getting harder and harder, and short term commercial interest has filled the vacuum (inadequately of course).

Loose ends and the hope of things to come

Loose ends and the hope of things to come

Stories may be lifelike, but not like life. After all they require a selectiveness about what to tell and what to withhold. That decision is fundamental to narrative success.

When you’re writing a piece of fiction, or for that matter a poem, the notion of form is metaphorical. You can choose to work within a recognisable genre, or verse form, (though even here the “form” cannot be a constraint in the way drawing within a rectangle might be). Or you can set your own terms and ask the reader or viewer to come with you. Readers or viewers will then come to their own judgements about whether this new thing you’ve offered is aesthetically or even emotionally satisfying.

Christopher Booker made a splash arguing an alternative view. His The Seven Basic Plots spends hundreds of pages trying to delineate seven archetypal narrative forms, which he suggests somehow correspond (in a Jungian way) to something deep in our consciousness. If you deviate from these forms, as old Modernists like James Joyce did, he argues you will produce something necessarily unsatisfying.

This strikes me as a lot of effort to give a psychobabbling and spurious apology for bourgeois art, but with that point made, I want to focus on the mainstream narrative of ITV’s Marcella, which just completed its first (and possibly only) series.

Marcella was written by Hans Rosenfeldt, who created and wrote The Bridge. You could say then he has form, which would happen to be a version of crime fiction with plots extended by multiple red herrings.

It worked after a fashion through most of Marcella, because through most of the series it was impossible to guess what was going on. There were just too many elements in play. This was useful for Rosenfeldt because it obscured the many implausibilities that were already running through the story.

In these circumstances implausibility really may not matter too much. You go along with the story (this is a version of writers being able to set their own terms).

The trouble is that what when you’re working in an established genre like TV crime fiction you also have to deal with a weight of audience expectation. We could accept and enjoy all these multiplying threads because the genre promised resolution in the end.

It seems though that the pleasure of this resolution depends on how much actually gets resolved. Marcella answered its main whodunnit question, with meta-narrative pretensions (some of the story’s red herrings had been put there by the killer to keep the police from his trail). I understand too that the series might have wanted to set itself up for a sequel, where further questions could be answered, but with the way it all worked out there were far too many loose ends for this to be acceptable.

It’s true that audience expectations are not set in stone, even when you choose to work in a mainstream genre like crime fiction. You can shift those expectations, recalibrate them, as David Lynch and Mark Frost did in an extreme way with Twin Peaks. The latter started off looking like a soap with a murder mystery thrown in, but it soon became clear that the pleasures it offered were going to be of a different kind, with the narrative constantly teetering on the edge of coherence (I think and hope David Lynch would take that as a compliment).

But you have to do the work for this. Marcella wanted to take us to a version of London where building companies murder local authority planners if they get in the way of a project. This might just about have been plausible had there been a gangland connection, but it didn’t seem to be that kind of story. None of the red herrings or minor plotlines conditioned our responses to expect anything other than a tying up of loose ends. Writers can set their own terms, but that takes a bit of effort, and on its own terms Marcella was sadly underwritten.

It’s illuminating to contrast this inadequate narrative management with the very finely calibrated conclusion of Great Expectations. Dickens had some problems with the ending. There was public pressure for a happier resolution, in which Pip finally got together with Estella. Dickens consequently rewrote the ending, with a carefully ambiguous sentence which allows the reader to hope for their eventual union. But it doesn’t actually offer that resolution, instead perpetuating the daft aspiration we were encouraged to share with Pip throughout the story, that he might marry this monstrous woman. Great Expectations is a novel about how romantic hope may overwhelm judgement, an idea which it formally embodies by playing on the romantic expectations we readily bring to these fictions. The ending cleverly leaves us in a state of irresolution, which is formally satisfying, just because it is frustrating for our sentimentality.

Marcella is not alone among recent TV productions in taking us for a ride then leavingt us short of the destination, bodging the end: Line of Duty is the most obvious high-profile culprit. The Dickens comparison shows that there’s a world of difference between a creative ambiguity and a tangle of loose ends or implausibility. Endings have the power to make or break or story, no matter what may have preceded them. I’ve found myself too often lately living in the hope of something better from TV drama.

Ads, digital media and the free lunch

Ads, digital media and the free lunch

We seem to be approaching a moment of truth about Internet content and how it gets paid for. Some have argued for a while that maybe the Net was not as disruptive as previously thought, and that the old school notion of advertising had turned out to be the key to commercial viability. The trouble is that notion is quietly falling apart.

There seems to be a clash of realities. It’s said that Internet advertising must be somehow effective because companies keep paying for it, and Google and Facebook have got rich on it. But I don’t know anybody who claims to have read an ad on the internet, let alone bought anything as a result.

I know full well that advertising effectiveness can’t be judged simply on immediate purchases. There’s the possibility of brand reinforcement, and long term relationship-building through reassurance. But there are other clear signs of a problem.

Martin Sorrell no less recently lashed out at Google and Facebook on behalf of advertisers for the opacity of their measurement systems. I’ve heard expert analysts elsewhere suggest that claims routinely made about the reach of internet advertising are little short of fraudulent (you can find a succinct account of some of the technical problems here .

The ad blocker blocked?

Meanwhile more and more people are using ad blockers in their browsers (up from around 18 per cent to something approaching 25 per cent).

In the UK we’re not fond of intrusive hucksterish advertising, which is why on TV many ads evolved into a form of entertainment in themselves (though necessarily irritating even then with constant repetition). Online advertisers seem to have forgotten this lesson. I’ve noticed more and more of the magazine sites I visit now protest at my use of an ad blocker because they depend on the revenue, but I’m not inclined to switch off the blocker when the ads they feature are so often intrusive and mess up my reading experience. Even if I did switch it off it’s unlikely that something which irritates me is likely to make me feel warm about the advertiser.

Similarly in France publishers are trying to put together a united front against ad blockers, denying all access unless you switch the blocker off. Here in the UK the Guardian newspaper has just done the same for some of its editorial. Commercial TV channels have taken similar steps. The trouble is that the primary effect is to make you ask yourself how much you really want to see the content. Do I really care what The Guardian thinks about Jeremy Corbyn’s performance at Prime Minister’s Question Time? Probably not.

If it’s something that matters to you you might just about put up with the advertising, not least because if you’re watching a streamed TV show you can always look at something else in another tab while the ad spews its drivel in the background. As for the newspaper titles here and in France, since the vast bulk of daily newspaper content is immediately forgettable, and there are always likely to be alternative news sources, all they are likely to do is lose “eyeballs”. It’s as though these publishers really don’t understand the hopelessness of their plight. It’s not simply that the Internet has undermined their business model. It’s underlined the easy disposability of what they offer.

Last week Opera software launched the latest preview version of its browser, with an ad blocker built in. Opera might be a niche option (though it’s long been my preferred browser) but it has consistently pioneered features that all others have followed. It claims the built-in blocker will be more efficient than plug in alternatives, and the result will be a significant boost in browsing speeds, an overt acknowledgment that ads are actively damaging the Internet experience for many people.

The end of newspapers?

Then there’s the decision by the UK’s Independent newspaper to move to a digital-only format at the end of this month, the first national newspaper in this country to do so. It’s true that the Indie’s hand has been forced by falling sales of the print edition, but this has long seemed the likely fate of all newspapers here as younger generations in particular have turned to online sources for their fix of news and comments.

Because the Indie is commercially the weakest of the UK’s titles (despite being good editorially) it’s probably not an ideal test case for the digital-only move, and it remains to be seen whether it can build a good enough circulation with the digital subscriptions to sustain the established media model of advertising and cover price revenue.

All of this underlines the reality that we are still in relatively early days, where habits and possible commercial models are very uncertain. And although journalists themselves may wring their hands over the possible cost to democracy of a diminished or even non-existent fourth estate, in truth this has become more of a theoretical than a real loss: the news media in the UK, sadly including the BBC, has become the hapless lapdog of vested Establishment and proprietorial interests. If you want a sustained critique of governments you need to look to independent blogs and web sites like Open Democracy, though it’s true that even these face the challenge of getting people to pay for content. The preferred answer seems to be ask for donations, which at least do not compromise editorial integrity, but this must be an uneasy way to build a title. Unfortunately too these sites are unlikely to have the impact on political behaviour that mainstream titles have acquired.

The rise of the platforms

Why would anyone pay for journalism, when titles are still trying to maintain an ad-funded “free” model? There’s a world of difficulty here, not least that that the commercial fruits of having global mass audiences are being largely vacuumed up by the mega-platforms, Google, Facebook, and in a different way Apple, Netflix and Spotify. The content organisers and aggregators have been harvesting most of the available advertising revenues, while the content creators struggle.

In a sense this too is nothing new: it’s just that the point of intervention in profit taking has shifted. In the last hundred years or so publishers have controlled writers’ access to the paying public, and reaped disproportionate reward. The Internet promised radical disintermediation, and theoretically it’s still available, but predictably too people have needed help in finding what they want or might value, and along the way have learned to expect most of that content for free. The “guide” platforms have become more important than the publishers, let alone the content creators.

But contrary forces have been gathering strength. Martin Sorrell has only articulated a growing concern among advertisers, and signalled what is probably the end of an uncritical honeymoon phase for social media and other digital properties.

A few things could happen now.

The big platforms are already making an offer of more advanced analytics: Google’s 360 tools (for instance) promise to simplify the maze of Big Data already available to marketers. It promises to do this by lining up a deep analysis of web behaviour with demographic data. Whether this proves to be another profit-generating smokescreen remains to be seen. It’s one of the uneasy trade-offs of the current Internet that we’re forgoing privacy for the sake of relevance. The deal is supposed to be (on both sides) that we’re only subjected to ads that could be specifically meaningful, in which case we might not mind them so much. The trouble is that there’s no sign of this promise being realised .
If advertisers remain unconvinced, and consumers irritated, there could well be serious consequences for the social media platforms.

Value, and possession

In any case things are not looking great for the media properties, unless they can persuade people to move to subscriptions. This might happen with time, but no one can imagine it’s going to be an easy transition.

The key here must be the ability to relate clear value to the point of payment, or to create a payment mechanism which softens these questions of value. This is after all how Netflix works. I’m happy to pay Netflix my six pounds a month, because it’s not much money in return for having a load of content organised for me in reliably good quality form (and free from ads). The fact that I’ve no real interest in the vast majority of titles on Netflix doesn’t matter as long there are two or three things in each month that I do want to watch. This model could work for other types of content, though I suspect the widespread habit of watching films and TV series makes it easier for people to see that they are going to get the value they’re paying for.

There may be something subtler, and ultimately more important at work too. Theoretically the Internet makes possible a closer continuing relationship between businesses and their customers. That seems attractive to marketers, and reinforces the idea that brand reputation is a critical commercial currency, but in cold reality such close relationships have so far proved too difficult (and too expensive) for most businesses to sustain, particularly when other factors have kept margins under pressure.

On the other side it’s hard not to think that consumers at a fundamental level don’t want the intrusion. In most areas the relationship has been preferably transactional: you pay some money and take away a product which you can then use without much thought for where it came from (unless it goes wrong). What we buy becomes a possession, and possessions are important to our sense of ourselves.

This may be part of the reason why there’s been a resurgence of interest in vinyl music recordings, or in craft products, and beyond these niche areas, a resurgence in sales of printed books at the expense of ebooks. I doubt it’s simply the superiority of the reading experience on paper; having a virtual library of titles that in truth depends on the continued existence of Amazon or Google seems a poor substitute for having books lying around your house. We might trade off some of this pleasure for the convenience of a tablet or Kindle, but there are limits.

Possession can’t be everything, and for other reasons we may have to adapt to some very radical ideas about shared resources (for instance with cars) but if that happens it may become all the more important that we hold on to the things we can possess, that we resist the move, attractive to many businesses, to turn products into “services”, or at least draw a clear line between which is which.

Follow the smart money

It’s still too early to say how all these different pressures and trends are going to resolve themselves. I’ve no doubt that advertising will continue to be present in our lives in many ways, though I suspect there are real and imminent limits to our tolerance of the corporate takeover of things we previously thought of in the public or personal domain. It wouldn’t be surprising to find that future digital business models will depend on service providers providing services that are genuinely valuable, allied to a payment mechanism which allows us to relate our sense of that value easily to a sensible financial figure. What matters is to work out where the real value lies, and offer it in a form that people can’t easily get elsewhere.

In this light media titles don’t just have a problem with their business model. They’ve a problem with their products too. Although the Internet has already changed the economics of production and distribution, this is an old verity that’s not going to go away.